Living (Catch My Breath)

It’s a bit hard to believe, but here I am posting the very last week’s song for #songaweek2018. Week 52’s suggested theme was “forest” and I did find a way to use it.

I stole a morning from a busy Christmas week schedule (played hooky from two of our numerous extended family events) and wrote this song, which was obviously influenced by the intense week of socializing!

Happy new year to all, and to all a quiet night 😉

I can’t see anything
Not the forest or the trees
just trying to catch my breath
And let it go again
You can’t say anything
That could make me lose my nerve
I’m just going to catch my breath
And let it go again

I’m living
I’m living
I’m living here

False starts and broken hearts
Somehow keep true love alive
You’ve just got to catch your breath
And let it go again

I’m living . . . now

Halfway to the end
think I’ll start again

Now I see everything
All the forest all the trees
just when I catch my breath
I let it go again
You can say anything
still won’t make me lose my nerve
I know how to catch my breath
And let it go again

I’m living . . . here

Each day brings songs to sing
hands to hold and roads to run
Just let me catch my breath
And let it go again

I’m living . . . now

Little Brother

I’ve written songs for both my parents, my husband, both my children, my brother’s wife and all of his children – but until week 51 of #songaweek2018 I still hadn’t written one for my one and only sibling, my brother Jeremy.

I’d been wanting to write a song for him for years, even attempted it a couple times before, but until this week I never had anything worth finishing. Thanks to my parents sending me some old photos, I was even able to put together a video collage.

Life without you well I don’t really remember it
It’s like you’ve always been around
Climbing trees and making faces at me

Little brother I once held you all inside my tiny arms
But now I look up to you

We rode our big wheels in the trailer park
Played GI Joe and Barbie dolls
Super Breakout and Super Mario

Little brother I once crushed you playing football in the yard
But now I look up to you

You got the chicken pox and I was jealous
Until I got it worse than you
And while I suffered, you learned to ride a bike first

We played in puddles and danced to records
And explored the woods out back
I guess we were best of friends

And now we’re grownups with families of our own
We send our kids to cousin camp
and barely remember what life without them was like

Little brother I once bossed you all around in every way
But now I look up to you

 

Decembrance

In the season of shortest days and darkest nights, I like to write songs like this. Winter can be a soul-sucking time of year, or from another perspective, it can be a time to slow down, pull in, lay low, and breathe.

As I was writing this song for week 49 of #songaweek2018, I was aware of the following influences: the feeling of an Irish blessing we sang in choir when I was in college; Handel’s Messiah (I love the way the word “comfortably” is sung in “Comfort Ye My People,” so I did it too); and the Christmas song “Oh Holy Night” which is referenced in “harmonies and holy nights.”

And still, on my mind throughout the year and now more poignantly as the year draws to a close, my Grammy, whose health continues to decline as we await her departure into deepest rest.

Slow dance of the winter, deep sleep of the snow
Clear light of the night sky keep you as you go
Soft blanket of crystal, beasts nestled below
Still evergreen branches, lone call of the crow
All of the fragile ones have flown

Winds wending through treetops comfortably sigh
Rivers rest, insects hide
Memories and melodies murmur in your mind
Harmonies and holy nights hold us all through time
All through the night beyond our sight

Ride That Chariot of Fire

Oh this was another hard week for songwriting. Getting a moment to myself, and getting that moment to align with a moment of inspiration, just didn’t really happen this week. I like the first line, I think the chorus has something I can work more with, but other than that, this was an exercise in getting things done. I wrote and recorded and submitted my 48th consecutive weekly song for #songaweek2018, and I’m content with that.

Where have the years gone honey, did you hide them in your heart?
Come here, let’s just see what we remember starting from the start
Lake breezes, apple blossoms and happy holidays
Summer nights and winter morning blankets holding in the blaze 

Take each chance, children, that calls you to fly higher
Seize each moment, ride that chariot of fire

Blue skies were never promised us but they keep showing up
Life may be full or empty but we’re never left without a cup
Once we tossed those rose-colored glasses we began to see the light
And all that we’d been missing from the deeper beauty of the night

So many miles we’ve gone, so many roads left to explore
So many songs we’ve sung, and waiting in the wings, so many more

Let the Mystery Be

Last week (week 46 of #songaweek2018) was a disorienting blur for me. My laptop – which has become a sort of exterior brain that I depend on daily – needed repair and was out for most of the week. My main guitar wouldn’t hold tune very well so I dropped it off for some badly-needed routine maintenance. These are the two solitary items I’ve actually named when asked, “what would you grab and run with if your house started on fire?”

But I still had my classical guitar and a pen and notebook, and a few hours one day to write a song. It came together pretty quickly. Not one of my favorites of the year, but I felt pretty good at the end of my writing session.

Then the next day I was rehearsing the song and my son yelled from the other room, “Mom! You’re stealing another song!” He sang back to me the exact melody and rhythm I was singing for my first two lines. They were identical to Carly Rae Jepsen’s first two lines of “Call Me Maybe.”

I already had a sense that parts of the chorus were derivative of other songs, and knew that overall, the chords and rhythm were very simple and stock. I debated whether to change the melody of those particular lines, and decided that yes, even if legally I didn’t have an issue, artistically I did. Especially when I sang the song for my daughter later (who wasn’t around when my son made his observation), and she identified the same song with no hesitation when I asked, “does this remind you of another song?”

Ugh. I’m not happy with any alternative I tried for those two lines of melody, including what I sang for the recording. Good work, Carly Rae. That’s a catchy tune you came up with.

The lyrics are about those ineffable experiences we’ve all had – dreams, visions, moments of insight – that can’t be put into words, and that call us forward into the future, outward from our comfortable existence, onward to the next and the new.

Saturday I had both my laptop and guitar back, and employed them together to make this video.

I had a dream in the dark
It made a beautiful mark
In that moment between sleep and waking
But if I try to explain
It’d come out mangled and maimed
All of the treasure consumed in the taking
Shook in the shaking out

Let it live in peace
Let it live in me
Let the silence breathe
Let the mystery be
For another day

There’s things you’ve seen and heard
Can’t ever put into words
But when you’ve talked it all through they keep speaking
There’s music nobody wrote
More than the sum of its notes
The heart of every atom is beating
Faithfully keeping time

Set the music free
To sing in you and me
Let the silence breathe
Let the mystery be
For another day

Some things I’ll take to my grave
But that is not where they’ll stay
They’ll sprout and grow
and blossom and bloom
and wither and fade away

And scatter their seeds
Beyond you and me
Who in the silence breathe
Let the mystery be
For another day

It’s Just Life

[Don’t forget to vote!]

The chorus of this song was a random idea I’ve saved for a couple years. I didn’t have a sudden burst of inspiration for week 44 of #songaweek2018, so I went back over past notes and found this idea saved as a voice memo. The only thing I changed for this song was “why we carry on” which initially was “why you carry on.” Otherwise the words and tune you hear in this chorus are exactly the original idea around which I built the rest of the song.

So many influences here. The general political climate in our nation. The mass shooting in Pittsburgh. A moment at a stoplight with a homeless man. My plodding through a volume of famous and obscure works by H.G. Wells. The Pale Blue Dot poster that hangs by my desk – a cherished gift from a friend.

This song is constructed slightly differently than my – and many songwriters’ – standard format of multiple verses, a repeated chorus, and one bridge somewhere after the middle to break things up a bit. You could say it either has two different verse formats, each repeated once; or one verse format repeated twice (“So talk to me . . .” and “oh sing to me . . .”) and one bridge repeated twice (“what a waste is there . . .” and “if I hadn’t rolled my window down . . .”). And a single repeating chorus.

The tune for what I’m calling the bridge (“what a waste is there . . .”) actually grew from another quote that didn’t make it into the final song. It came from a G.K. Chesterton book I’m also plodding through, the Father Brown mysteries. (Why am I such a sucker for books by dead Englishmen with initials for names? Besides H.G. Wells and G.K. Chesterton I’ve also read nearly everything I can find by P.G. Wodehouse. And then of course there’s J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot. Apparently a trend of their time and culture. Along with the cringey moments of racism and sexism their readers must stumble through.)

But the Chesterton quote – I loved the way it flowed so much that I copied it into my notes for possible later use: “I knew Jupiter Jesus out in Denver; saw him for weeks on end; and he was just a common crook.” (from “The Miracle of Moon Crescent” in The Incredulity of Father Brown).

I sang those words till I had a tune and chords I liked for them. Then as I worked further on the song, I tried to keep them intact as my first bridge, but eventually had to “murder my darlings” and let those words go from this song. Maybe they’ll show up elsewhere someday. I just think they’re too good to only be used once, now that they’re in public domain!

Not much more I want to say about this song except an emphasis of one main idea in it – that sometimes when everything feels dark and wrong and impossible to set right, it’s good to step back and look at it all from a wider angle. In the grand scheme of things, every atom matters. But I can’t see or feel how much it all matters until I roll down the window, put down the phone, embrace life with an active presence and all my senses. That’s when life feels more approachable, manageable, liveable, too.

The videos are all from the International Space Station, downloaded from this website – https://eol.jsc.nasa.gov/BeyondThePhotography/CrewEarthObservationsVideos/. I didn’t set out to do this, but I think you won’t see any views of the United States here. That feels like a timely reminder for me and my fellow citizens, that the world doesn’t actually revolve around us.

So talk to me
So tell me how it goes with you in these dark days
Before the dawn
And stay with me
Believe me when I say to you it’s coming soon
Keep holding on

There must be a reason why we carry on
We’re here a little while and then we’re gone
There, there, it’s alright, it’s just life

What a waste is there of exquisite things
The young are the food of war
We are just a mote of dust

Oh sing to me
Open up your soul and let the truth fly free
Into the night
Be not afraid
The killers have no power over shining stars
And rising suns

There must be a reason why we carry on . . .

If I hadn’t rolled my window down
I’d never have seen his smile
And he was just a homeless man

There must be a reason why we carry on . . . 

Know You

I wasn’t consciously thinking about #MeToo or the conversations we’re having around consent in this cultural moment, but as this song took shape I can see its influence.

Just this morning I finished the last in a three-part Radiolab podcast called “In the No.” Which I did not enjoy but forced myself to listen to for my own good, like going to the dentist or cleaning the bathroom. In general I don’t like talking about sex or seeing/hearing it reenacted (all of which happens in this series, including both staged and real audio recordings of sexual encounters), let alone discussions of BDSM (a main topic of the last episode).

But I’m trying to parent two humans who mean more than anything to me, and this is their world. I won’t – and don’t – always understand, but I want to be engaged and informed.

Though there were important moments of insight and perspective throughout the series, all my discomfort in listening was worth it for the very last few minutes of episode three, starting at 24:35, when Michael Lissack, director of Empowering Victims, said this:

“Unfortunately, [consent] frames the entire question the wrong way. Consent means that you’re giving someone permission to do something to you. We don’t do sex to someone else. We have sex with someone else. . . It’s the wrong word.”

And the very last words of the series, from an unnamed woman discussing her current relationship:

“It’s so nice to have a partner that can read your body language and be like, this doesn’t feel right, are you okay?”

“Consent” is legal language and an obvious and irrefutable baseline. It’s unconscionable that it’s taken us this long as a society just to get to the point where this is an expectation for everyone, including men in positions of power.

But as a measure of a meaningful relationship, consent is much too low a bar. I want to know my partner, in every sense of the word. And I want my partner to know me, and to want to know me. This is what I hope and pray for my children too, as they grow into adulthood and seek out life partners, to love and be loved, body and soul, heart and mind.

Here’s my song for week 43 of #songaweek2018:

Tell me all the things you think about honey
Tell me everything you know about love
Tell me all the jokes you think are funny
Tell me everything you know about love

I really wanna know
I really wanna know
I wanna know you

Tell me what scares you, what hurts and haunts you
Tell me everything you know about love
Tell me about the hands you couldn’t hold on to
Tell me everything you know about love

Tell me all the things you dream about baby
Tell me everything you know about love
Tell me what can make your legs get shaky
Tell me everything you know about love

I’m listening
With all my ears
And all my heart

Normal

I’ll be 43 this week. And still, I’m writing songs like this one, processing my childhood and the life that grew from it.

We are all shaped by histories we had little to no control over. Our agency grew as we did. Looking back at my history, some things seem especially strange now that felt completely normal then, as that was the only reality I knew in my short life span.

But of course I’m not unique in this. It’s a human thing.

There are several facets to the idea of “normal” in this song. There’s what I mentioned already – that what feels normal when you’re born into it can look anything but normal in retrospect.

Another facet for me, because of my particular history, is that I’ve struggled with feeling like a normal person much of my life – in two very different ways. First, when I was growing up inside fundamentalism, I learned that we the faithful were the chosen ones. We were “a peculiar people” and that wasn’t supposed to sound funny – because it was in the Bible, King James Version, which was the most highly regarded and the one I grew up with.

(We also believed that everyone outside our construct was destined to eternal damnation, burning forever in a literal hell. Sometimes I wonder if the “chosen people” idea was a way to help us cope with the horror of this belief. If you are constantly reminded that your “unsaved” family, friends, neighbors, grocery cashier, letter carrier, etc., etc., are doomed to that kind of suffering unless you can somehow convince them to join your club – I mean church – it might help to imagine them as somehow a lesser being than you are. Maybe they won’t feel the pain like you would. In this case I wouldn’t exactly call our outlook on “the unsaved” dehumanization because I think we were imagining ourselves as slightly above genuine humanity. We were “reborn,” “converted” – humanity plus. But it probably had a similar effect on our outlook.)

So that was one side of my struggle with feeling normal, the one I lived with while growing up in that environment.

The other side has been in the years since, exiting from fundamentalism, and feeling like an outsider trying to learn a new culture. For a long time I didn’t feel legitimate, because I had missed out on so many of the experiences that were common to my generation’s growing-up years. I don’t have memories associated with the music and movies of my generation, because I wasn’t allowed to listen to that music or go to theaters. I was married before I was even offered my first drink. The wildest oats I sowed was an all-[cis, straight] girls strip-and-run through the woods in my college years. Once. I think we might have howled at the moon for extra tension release.

Deeper than that, I just didn’t learn the everyday street-smarts that many people get growing up in a less sheltered environment. I was naive, shy, fearful. All those years of working hard to keep a long list of rules had ill-prepared me to live in a world where the rules weren’t always so clear, if they existed at all. I went into every situtation wanting to know what was expected of me, what I needed to do to make people like me, and I couldn’t always figure it out.

Only in very recent years have I learned that in most situations, there just isn’t a list of expectations for me to check off. There’s nobody standing by with a clipboard grading me. I don’t have to perform in order to be deemed a real live human being. I just am. And so is everyone else. I’m nothing special, and I’m the only me there ever was or will be. And the same goes for you.

That’s what I mean by normal, at least as I was writing this, my song for week 42 of #songaweek2018: (Wow, only ten weeks left!) The suggested theme was “socks,” so I stuck in some socks for good measure.

I used to live in Indiana
In a trailer park on the edge of town
There was a field where we ran and played
And I liked to pick Queen Anne’s Lace

It was normal, all so normal
Like shoes and socks, baby dolls and blocks
And black and white TV

I used to pledge allegiance to the Bible
And the flags of my faith and country
Every morning at the Christian school
Where they gave us all the answers

It was normal, all so normal
I was good as gold, did what I was told
And I won a lot of trophies

That was a long time ago
I still don’t know what I don’t know

I’ve moved a dozen times since then
Geographically, theologically
I own a single-family detached dwelling
And I took my trophies to the thrift store

This is normal, all so normal
I’m a bona fide, genuine
I have always been and I will always be
like every one of you looking back at me,
An honest-to-God human being.

Hold Out For Love

“Regret” was the suggested theme for week 41 of #songaweek2018. I took it as a prompt instead of a theme this time. Possibly the thing that makes us best as humans is also what can bring us to our lowest point, and that is our need to love and be loved. But Bertrand Russell said “love is wise” (yes I did just mention this a few weeks ago – guess it’s worth repeating), and I agree. Although much of what we call love is not actually love, in our deepest and truest reaching out to one another, love does bring us wisdom. And so regret never comes from actual love. Pain, heartbreak, grief, yes, but not regret.

My mother has been preparing for a few years now to say goodbye to her mother Thelma, who we have been slowly losing to Alzheimer’s, and it’s looking like the final goodbye isn’t far away now. She’s my last living grandparent, and has always shown a special interest in my songwriting. Even as she began having trouble remembering people, when I would make my yearly trek across the country to see her, one of her first questions to me was inevitably, “are you still singing and writing?” The last time we were together she didn’t remember me, but she did sing with me, Amazing Grace.

This year I celebrated twenty years of marriage to Nathan. Anyone who’s been married this long (okay, anyone who’s been in a relationship with another human being for more than five minutes) will tell you it’s not all smooth sailing. I’ve learned over these years that there are inevitable valleys, where one of us will feel the need to approach the other and ask, “are you still with me?” Not because of any major issue, just a long gradual slide into autopilot I guess. And so even within long-term relationships, we hold out for love, and once in a while we lock on to it, and those times are worth the holding-out times.

This is some of the landscape in my head as I was writing this song. I had extra time to work on the recording, and decided to do a photo collage for the video. I included photos of each of my grandparents, cute kids and animals, and romantic love too.

Nobody has to tell us, we already know
The road to the heart of another is hard
Nobody has to show us, we just have to go
And come back alone and wiser

All of our lives we hold out for love
Hold out for someone to hold on to
And once in a while we lock on to love
Hold on to someone who holds us too

Nobody stays forever, as everybody knows
The music we make with another must end
Nobody can prepare us to let a love song go
And come back alone and wiser

Nobody knows the reasons why everybody hurts
we wake in the darkness and can’t feel the light
nobody needs convincing that loneliness is worse
Than coming back alone and wiser

Talk About the Weather

This song started with an idea I saved on my phone in August, which ended up being most of the melody and one line of the lyrics (“talk about the weather while I pull myself together”).

In trying to fill out this idea, I read back through my journal for the year and came across a dream I had shortly after being at my friend Troy’s funeral. That became the second verse.

I had a tune idea for the chorus but couldn’t come up with any words, so I searched through the public domain poems I’ve got filed away for possible writing use, and decided on “What If You Slept?” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The poem is italicized in the song lyrics below.

This is another song that certainly needs more work, but I’m not sure whether I’ll ever come back to it. Week 40 of #songaweek2018 was a week of getting the job done, not making a masterpiece!

It has turned out to fit well with this week’s weather though. And as always, I’m glad I took the time to write.

Today I feel I’ve said it all before
So let’s just talk about the weather while I pull myself together
My big ideas are a bigger bore
But how bout all this rain that’s falling?
Is it cold enough for you?

I dreamed my heart got buried with my friend
and that I didn’t even know it but that’s why I was stoic when they
Laid him down in the April ground
And how bout all this rain that’s falling?
Is it cold enough for you?

What if you slept and what if
In your sleep you dreamed

And what if in your dream
You went to heaven and there plucked
A strange and beautiful flower . . .

Some days all we can do is make it through
Just smile and talk about the weather try to keep it all together
Why is it home looks better when you’ve left
And how bout all this rain that’s falling
Is it cold enough for you?

. . .and what if when you awoke
You had that flower in your hand
Ah, what then?